“It was the voluntary welfare organisation’s effort to move towards evidence-based practice, which the new centre hopes to foster” (VWO Adopts Evidence-Based Practice For Debt Programme, Neo Chai Chin).
The evidence-based pilot programme by the Methodist Welfare Services (MWS) to help low-income households clear their debts sets a good precedent for other voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) to track the efficacy of their endeavours, and the finding that “there was not enough evidence to suggest that the programme had worked” (TODAY, Apr. 25) could suggest the need to increase financial literacy beyond the reactive debt management, for instance, which are offered by most VWOs at present. In the past helping families increase their net worth by an average of S$2,500 would have been hailed as an achievement, yet increased rigour in assessment – through performance measurement and management (PMM) for instance, wherein data is captured and checked – holds VWOs to higher standards.
In other words PMM allows these organisations to ascertain the true impact of their efforts. It has been convenient to use feedback surveys and untested quantitative figures to evaluate awareness campaigns and intervention programmes respectively, but these measurements could be riddled by response bias or unfounded estimations. What the MWS has done is to conduct a counterfactual study – against a control group of households that did not enjoy the matched payment of debt offered by the VWO – to determine whether families can be encouraged to clear portions of their debt through a co-payment initiative. Such research can now be facilitated more actively by the new Social Service Research Centre (SRR) at the National University of Singapore, exposing more social work practitioners and policymakers to these methods.
And as stakeholders figure out the strategies which work, against a background of broader socio-economic challenges in the future, the right schemes can be designed for low-income workers and their families.
In this vein the need for financial literacy will also come under the spotlight. Besides the National Financial Literacy Survey conducted by the Monetary Authority of Singapore in 2005 there has been no comprehensive undertaking to assess and gauge knowledges towards financial matters, especially across different quintiles. Programmes and policies thus far – such as the one by the MWS – are oftentimes premised upon alleviation, after debts have mounted, when in fact prevention should feature more prominently. Taking into account broader indicators of inflationary pressures or inequities, gaps in understanding can be plugged through education and keener guidance.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.